Stanley Kubrick on Actors in Studios vs. On Locations

I’ve been reading The Stanley Kubrick Archives, and stumbled upon this little gem from Stanley Kubrick’s Director’s Notes on Spartacus:

“For a psychological story, where the characters and their inner emotions and feelings are the key thing, I think that a studio is the best place. Working on a set provides the actor with much better concentration and ability to use his full resources.” (Dec. 4, 1960)

This is also why I don’t think that motion capture work and VFX-heavy shooting in the studio is as difficult for actors as people may think. Actors do the majority of their training with only the essential pieces of the whole reality around them. A fully artificial environment is sometimes less stimulating and distracting than a real-world location. Yes, replicating a full reality for an actor can help them “act” less, but if that full reality is accompanied by a thousand distractions…you’re not getting the advantage you think.

Again Kubrick: “When Spartacus was being made, I discussed this point with Olivier and Ustinov and they both said that they felt that their powers were just drifting off into space when they were working out of doors. Their minds weren’t sharp and their concentration seemed to evaporate. They preferred that kind of focusing-in that happens in a studio with the lights pointing at them and the sets around them.”

For me there’s a similar sense of imaginative concentration available in two more places: the theater, and the wilderness. Isolated wilderness is very different from shooting on a city block with passers-by and bystanders. It replicates the sense of freedom of being a kid playing in the woods, where I have memories of being utterly free and creative.

It still comes down to the ability to dance and shout and wiggle around by myself, or with my favorite collaborators. And sometimes we have to generate that sense of freedom in front of other people. Lord knows, live theater demands it, but that’s a different phase of the creation.

Isolation, focus, contained joy and struggle and experimentation. It’s a theme of creativity that I keep seeing repeated in the work of the people I most admire. Bon Iver came out with a new album on August 30. Faith and Hey, Ma are two of the most uplifting, exciting things I’ve ever heard from Juston Vernon – he seems to have tapped into something new with his collaborators.

I can’t say I was surprised when I read this from Vernon, referring to their time recording i,i at the Sonic Ranch in Texas:

“It allowed us to feel confident and comfortable, to be completely free of distraction. I don’t think I left the property in six weeks. And in many ways the story of the album is the story of those six weeks rather than the almost six years of some of the songs.”

Directing Story with Light

When it comes to directing, isn’t the shaping of the light just…sort of shading pictures? Or just setting a kind of cool mood that helps the audience get to the real stuff: the performance of the story?

Well, I found out the answer is no. All stories, or almost all, take place in a human world, and our world is defined by light (at least for the majority of us who are fortunate enough to possess the power of vision…and therefore movie-watchers). Day, night, light, dark – light is the ultimate arbiter of information. How light plays over someone’s face, over a room, over an event, fundamentally defines not only our perception of it all, but the behavior of people WITHIN the story.

I ask myself: what do people do in dark places vs. light places?

Why are nightclubs lit low and gymnasiums lit brightly?

Why do shadows frighten us sometimes?

What happens before we recognize someone vs. after? When they step from dark into light?

All of these, and more, define behaviors, which create moments, which are the bricks of story.

When Kubrick was directing Lolita, the scene where Quigley pretends to be the German doctor is lit by a single lightbulb – which really annoyed the cinematographer. But Kubrick insisted. It wasn’t just to create a mood…but because it had to be believable that Humbert did not recognize Quigley. It was a matter of believability: how would Humbert behave in this light?

Light isn’t just about mood – it’s about story.